Who Is the New Denzel? Hollywood Struggles to Launch Next Black Stars

Malcom X Denzel Washington Poster Question Mark - P 2014
Courtesy of Everett Collection

Malcom X Denzel Washington Poster Question Mark - P 2014

As "Get On Up" hits theaters, all eyes are on the next generation.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Even before Chadwick Boseman finished shooting Universal's James Brown biopic Get on Up, out Aug. 1, he was approached to star in new projects as Sam Cooke, Richard Pryor and, in Ang Lee's planned boxing movie, Muhammad Ali. "I was like, 'No. I can't do that. Really?' " laughs Boseman, who last year fronted the Jackie Robinson baseball biopic 42. "That's too much."

PHOTOS Denzel Washington: His Life and Career in Pictures

That Boseman, 32, would be courted to anchor upcoming films about three African-American icons speaks to his talent and experience. But it also highlights a harsh reality in Hollywood: There aren't many choices. As the first generation of global black movie stars ages out of leading-man roles, the heirs apparent to Will Smith, 45; Denzel Washington, 59; and Eddie Murphy, 53, have not established themselves at the box office. "When you look at the landscape of up-and-coming talent, besides Chadwick and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), there really aren't a lot of names that come to mind, and that's an area of concern for us," says Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association. "We haven't really done enough to cultivate the next generation. It's one thing to appear in a movie here or there, but it's another to really build a rich career."

In the 1990s and well into the 2000s, Hollywood boasted a throng of bankable black stars, with Smith (Independence Day: $817.4 million worldwide gross), Washington (American Gangster: $266.5 million) and Murphy (The Nutty Professor: $274 million) able to get movies greenlighted and open them worldwide. Smith and Washington still can command $20 million per picture in the right role, and they have broken through with overseas audiences, who haven't always been receptive to black stars. But with that trio and other successful black actors -- including Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman and Forest Whitaker -- all past 40, the question is which actors will make up the next wave of A-list black stars.

In addition to Boseman, several under-40 black actors recently have been cast in promising roles. Jordan, 27, will play the Human Torch in Fox's The Fantastic Four reboot, making him one of the first black actors to play a lead superhero that was white in the comics. John Boyega, 22, landed a key role in Disney's Star Wars: Episode VII, currently shooting. Anthony Mackie, 35, played The Falcon in April's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. X-Men: Days of Future Past actor Omar Sy, 36, co-stars in next summer's Jurassic World. And Damon Wayans Jr., 31, is being groomed for a Beverly Hills Cop-style film breakout in Let's Be Cops, out Aug. 13.

"What I keep saying is we have to look at roles that are written and not assume that just because they don't say African-American or they don't say black, we can't cast African-Americans," says Clint Culpepper, president of Screen Gems, which often releases films with black casts. But Hollywood follows the money, and no under-35 black star has carried a global mega-grossing film in recent years. None besides perhaps Mackie carry name recognition with general audiences.

Of course, the value of stars of any race has been questioned in the past few years. And there are recent African-American success stories. Kevin Hart has become a breakout star in the U.S. with hits like Ride Along and Think Like a Man. But his films have performed well because of a strong turnout by minorities, not general audiences. For Ride Along's opening weekend in January, African-Americans made up 50 percent of ticket buyers, followed by Hispanics (30 percent) and Caucasians (12 percent). Hart's films also have yet to perform strongly overseas (Ride Along raked in $134 million domestic but just $19 million abroad). With studios putting increased value on foreign audiences, actors must show they can open movies overseas in order to become major stars.

PHOTOS '42' L.A. Premiere: Hollywood Celebrates the Legend of Jackie Robinson

"That's been the final frontier -- to have films that have leads of color perform well around the world," says African-American producer Will Packer (Ride Along). "I think that will come. I think part of it will be the studios getting behind those films and not allowing it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy that those films don't work."

For now, when there are starring roles for young black actors in mainstream studio movies, they mostly are in historical dramas such as December's Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr., which is starring another up-and-coming actor, David Oyelowo, 38. Boseman wasn't offered that film but he probably would have passed had he been approached.

"We're looking for the next great role and are really colorblind with it," says Boseman's agent, Michael Greene. "And we're looking for a really cool franchise for him to star in."

5 Black Actors on the Cusp

?Damon Wayans Jr., 31

TV roles on Happy Endings and New Girl led to Let's Be Cops (Aug. 13).

?Chadwick Boseman, 32

42 grossed $95 million domestic, Get on Up is out Aug. 1, Gods of Egypt in 2016.

?Michael B. Jordan, 27

Awards notice for Fruitvale Station led to The Fantastic Four.

?Omar Sy, 36

The Intouchables star has X-Men: Days of Future Past and Jurassic World.

?John Boyega, 22

The Attack the Block star landed Star Wars: Episode VII.

E-mail: Rebecca.Ford@THR.com
Twitter: @Beccamford